Mission Impossible Agencies: When Government Doesn’t Work

When I first entered public service at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I wanted to improve how it served veterans— veterans like my mother and father, who each served in the U.S. Air Force, where they first met and had me. How the VA provided home mortgages to veterans, one of which bought the home I grew up in. Or how VA buries our deceased veterans, like how VA buried my father in the VA cemetery in Riverside, California.

And what I found was that the real problem facing not only VA, but all federal agencies, wasn’t a lack of caring. It wasn’t a lack of resources. And it wasn’t because we had bad employees per se—while we had our share, we also had some of the best. To this day, I can say that many of the best people I have ever worked with were at VA.

The real problem we faced was that the scope of their jobs grew to be so impossibly large, we just simply couldn’t keep our best employees. They would get fed up and leave for greener pastures, and every couple of years we would effectively start over, from scratch, on virtually every project of import.

How often do you hear people say things like, “That government agency is trying to do too much! That’s why they’re failing—they just can’t focus!”? Personally, I never hear that sort of comment, even though most professionals understand that focus is the key to success. Instead, I always hear the opposite: “That agency should do more, and more, and more…!”

Well, when you keep asking someone—like a government agency—to do more, at some point, it becomes impossible.

These become what I call the Mission Impossible Agencies. They lose so much focus, they become doomed to fail.

Every year in the government, I saw the government constantly trying to do more, trying to add more goals and services, instead of just focusing around a certain few goals and services and making those better. It was as much Congress’s fault as anyone’s (Congress is usually the very worst offender). And sure enough, every couple of years, the best employees would realize how impossible this was, and they would leave. Those that stayed would learn to accept that success wasn’t an option and go on auto-pilot—becoming the stereotypical bureaucrat that you might see at the DMV.

While I saw this at VA, it has also been documented at agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which oversees not only the stock market but ostensibly regulates all U.S. investments (all three trillion dollars of them!); or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which tries to regulate the only field—food and nutrition—responsible for sparking more vehement online debate than religion or politics; or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which tries to regulate all consumer transactions (worth $11 trillion!). These agencies have missions that have become so large, so impossible to execute, that any employee who can have a modicum of success quickly leaves for greener pastures. Meanwhile, the small but focused Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—of all places!—consistently ranks highest in its ability to retain top talent.

In response, not realizing that the lack of focus is the issue, the government has tried to retain their best by raising salaries for everyone, but that doesn’t work—with few exceptions, those that can leave will always leave; who wants to work in an impossible job? The best are never satisfied with salary alone, they also seek recognition.

Raising everyone’s salaries actually makes the problem worse. Those that don’t care become further entrenched at the Mission Impossible Agency, since generally they are now paid well above market, and at an impossible job that doesn’t care if they succeed or not to boot—because they know that no one can! (After all, how do you hold employees accountable to something impossible?) So, the Mission Impossible Agencies are stuck—their most entrenched employees are likely paid well above market, and with little or no accountability either. In this scenario there is absolutely no way the worst of their employees are ever going to leave.

And they never will.

These agencies—SEC, FDA, CFPB, and VA—have a talent issue because they are too broad. So, they will always fail—unless they slim down and focus. As in sports, as in life—When you lose focus, you make mistakes. A lot of them. This is what the Mission Impossible Agencies do.

The Mission Impossible Agencies need narrower missions and actually achievable goals. They need to focus on what the government does best—like collecting and sharing data, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does, or sharing unique technology, like NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) does, or protecting us from highly specific and extremely hazardous materials, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does. There are more examples, but the key is that their focus and goals should be specific and measurable, and confined to a narrow area (hint: $11 trillion is not narrow), and have a history of success—meaning, demonstrated competence.

Whenever I have asked government employees if this is what they wanted—smaller, achievable missions that came with real accountability (and not the phony political kind that is associated with being tasked with the impossible)—their answer? They loved it! The teams I oversaw in government always appreciated it when I created that kind of atmosphere–-an atmosphere where my team could produce great, focused work that could meet or exceed specific expectations.

Who doesn’t love an important-but-achievable job, done well? I’ve yet to meet that person. And with some real focus and narrower missions, we can create a workforce that can produce real results for this country.

Otherwise, without focus, few employees worth their mettle will ever want to stay at the Mission Impossible Agencies.

 

 

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